Authors: Sarita Mandanna
The generals be right spooked too by all the Christmas canoodlin’ between us and the Boche; they given orders for us troops to move from sector to sector so we don’t get none too friendly no more with the other side. Hard to believe now that Christmas even happened; ain’t no tellin’ which part of the Front Hans Fitschen at now. On the Kaiser’s birthday, the Boche send a powerful heap of shells our way.
‘Just you wait till it’s
birthday,’ Gaillard yell afterwards, shakin’ his fists at their lines. ‘Just you wait and see the fireworks I send over then!’
We been long enough at the Front that our rawness, it start to smooth over. There’s things we done learned. When we pass through villages now, instead of chocolate or tobacco, it be tins of Vaseline we first look to buy. A slick of grease on the barrel of our rifles keep the mud from stickin’.
We know to be real careful lightin’ up a cigarette, and never to be third on a match. It bring bad luck. Three soldiers light up from the same match, the man that goes third, he sniper fodder. James though, he say it ain’t got nothin’ to do with luck.
‘When the first man lights his cigarette, it gives the sniper the range to his target. The second soldier lights up, that gives the sniper windage. The third – well, that’s the shot.’
Put that way, it sure make sense. I known from the day I met him that this here Yankee, he powerful smart alright.
We know now to wear our cartridge belts to the side, so they don’t press into our backs when we sleep. We wrap our canteens under our blankets so they don’t freeze solid overnight, and warm the biscuit rations by the small fires we allowed to build in the dugouts when we find dry enough wood. Them biscuits, they be hard as iron – ain’t no amount of soakin’ in coffee or rum that do any good, but the fire soften them somewhat, makin’ them nearabout decent.
Our appetites, they fallen off from when we first signed up. We eat only half our rations now, savin’ the rest, like the
been doin’, for later. Still, when the Boche patrols take to hangin’ baskets on our wire at night, filled with wine, and cheese and meat, we be quick to take advantage. There’s notes the Boche leave with the food – these here are their daily rations, they write, why don’t we desert over to their side and see for ourselves? Them baskets, they left only ’bout a quarter full by the time they reach headquarters. And when headquarters send back baskets in reply, filled with fine French charcuterie and polite notes offerin’ this small bit of ‘charity’ to the Boche, well, what’s a legionnaire to do but follow System D and help hisself?
‘Charity start at home,’ I point out to James.
‘And fortune favours the bold,’ Karan agree from where he bendin’ over what left of his robe, pickin’ cooties from the folds and crackin’ them, one by one, between his thumbnails. There’s dirt all over those hands that once been so fancy, a thick black line under each nail, same as all of us. He laugh as a thought strike him. ‘You know what they should issue along with the uniforms? Mess kit – check, rifle and bayonet – check, ammunition – of course, and three live monkeys, standard issue. To help pick the cooties,
‘Well, I haven’t seen a single cootie around here,’ James say, strokin’ his beard. When we stare at him like he boo coo crazy – ‘Not a single one. Nope, all the ones I’ve met are married, with large families.’
Them devil-spawn cooties. In our clothes, in every bit of hair they find on our bodies – heads, armpits, the beards we been growin’ all winter for warmth. Gaillard show us to run a hot wire through the seams of our uniforms to kill off the nits. He tell ’bout anthills too. Soon as we find one, near the reserve trenches, we tear off our uniforms and spread shirts, jackets, all our gear over the hill. The ants, they pick off the cooties in swarms. After they done, for the next few hours at least there ain’t nothin’ movin’ in the seams.
Come April, and we still ain’t seen no real action. Just this crazymakin’ trench life, livin’ with the rats, just sittin’ ’bout waitin’ to get picked off by sniper fire and such. We figure out ways to entertain ourselves, durin’ those long, soul-kill hours between the night patrols and the shellin’. We stick a hat on top of a bayonet and pass it this way and that along the parapet, till a sniper’s bullet come tearin’ into it. We let the hat drop, wait awhile, and just when that sniper been congratulatin’ hisself on a hit, we start bobbin’ it ’bout again. Card games, always a card game goin’ on somewhere. We play for tobacco, or chocolate, or drinks when we get paid. Chevalier and others collect shrapnel and pieces of exploded shells. They worry at them with pocket knives and such, makin’ rings and souvenirs to send back home.
James now, he start playin’ the odds. He got a natural feel for numbers, makin’ out patterns where I find only mumble-jumble. Sort of like me and music, just findin’ rhythm where most others don’t. Them losses we suffer, all the men lost, every time we hear tell of another casualty, all of it go right into that brain of his, and what come out is numberin’ odds. Say we headed back towards the reserve trenches. It being a dark night, we figurin’ to take a detour – climbin’ up from them zigzag trenches, to cut out over open ground. The odds of makin’ it without attractin’ sniper fire ’bout twenty-four to one, James tell. Same exact detour with the moon up and shinin’, the odds just ’bout nine to one.
‘Given that there’s more chance of artillery fire gettin’ us right here in the trenches—’ He shrug. ‘We should just make the detour whenever there’s no moon, and save ourselves some bother.’
We get him to set all sorts of gamblin’ odds, of being shelled on a clear day with enemy planes crisscrossin’ overhead, of makin’ it through a night patrol dependin’ on the wind and which way the Verey lights gonna sail, and if we turn right from the wire, or left.
It been a thing for play at first, but when a raid party gotten caught in Boche crossfire, and the only one to make it back was James, the officers sit up and take notice.
How is it, Gaillard want to know, that James make it back when even the two
on the raid, with all their nerve and experience, didn’t?
‘The odds of survival,’ James answer slowly, ‘had I stayed where I was in the grass, or run straight back for the trenches, were both poor. The best bet, and most logical course of action given the direction of the Boche firing, was to run
, along their trenches till I was out of range. Once I was, I doubled back around to our lines.’
The higher-ups, they got their eye on James after that. It don’t surprise none of us, and put a great big grin on my mug when Yankee James Stonebridge promoted to Legionnaire 1st Class and then once more, to corporal, right before our marchin’ orders arrive for Artois.
Rumours been steady flyin’ around the trenches: a grand French offensive in the works. Goin’ to be a humdinger we hear, pushin’ the Boche right back to Berlin. We can’t hardly wait to get ourselves some real action at last, to be done with trench life for good.
It like new life been injected in us all. ’Fraid? Sure we ’fraid a little of what out there, but anythin’ got to be better than these months in the trenches. Gaillard and the other
tell of past wars won by the Legion, of Sidi Mohamed, Magenta and Camerone, till we all dreamin’ of open charges across No Man’s Land, fightin’ like real soldiers, no more of this devil-spawn diggin’ and shovellin’, of hidin’ ’bout below the ground. We sing as we march, the whole way to Artois.
Soon as we reach, damn if we ain’t handed shovels and picks once more.
James stroke his beard. ‘I believe it was Gaius Julius Caesar,’ he says real dry, ‘who said that he won just as many battles with the shovel as with the sword.’
the war here in Artois, more than we ever done before. It press down like the air before a thunderstorm. All across our side of the sector, soldiers busy expandin’ the trenches, layin’ mines and makin’ parallels for the attack. We work at night, layin’ duckboards and such, sometimes so close to the bobwire that if a man stretch out his arm, he could touch it with his fingers. The Boche, they know somethin’ up. Their machine guns are trained on our lines, spittin’ yellow fire through the nights.
Taras, one of Gaillard’s
buddies, hit through the chest and jaw at a listenin’ post. He taken, resistin’ fierce all the way, to the medics. We hear later that he wait just long enough for his wounds to be dressed. ‘You have to rest,’ the doctors say to him, ‘give your injuries time to mend,’ but Taras, he ain’t havin’ none of that. He set right back out, tryin’ to get back to the Legion. He don’t make it far. They find him later that evenin’, fallen by the roadside, dead.
Une bonne mort
,’ is all Gaillard say when he hear.
I don’t see what so good ’bout this death, what so honour filled ’bout dyin’ alone in a ditch. Poor devil, to get this close to the action we been waitin’ on so long, only to catch one too soon.
His dyin’, it make us shovel all the harder. The sweat pour freely as we lift sandbag after sandbag over the parapets, itchin’ bad to be done and for the attack to finally begin.
We ain’t got long to wait. Two days later, all patrols, every trench detail, is cancelled. There’s no other orders, not yet, but we know what this mean all the same.
All hell break loose in our camp, as we prepare to attack.
We shave off our winter beards, polishin’ our boots and washin’ the red sticky mud from skin and kit the best we can. Everythin’ that ain’t mission critical is removed from our packs. Men busy writin’ letters home. Chevalier bent for hours now over his pile of metal scraps, finishin’ a vase for his wife. A thing of wild, bayou beauty it is: birds, so many birds, carved all around, wings spread wide as they fly.
There’s big lines at the depot, legionnaires pushin’ and hollerin’, tryin’ to lay their hands on whatever extra cartridges they can. Gaillard and me, we go on a special System D mission – it take some doin’, and I ain’t tellin’ how or where, but when we get back to the camp, there so many grenades hangin’ ’bout our belts, it a wonder we even walkin’ straight.
I hand James three of the extra grenades. ‘Wherever did these—?’ he start to ask, then thinkin’ the better of it, he don’t.
‘In cold blood!’ Karan be bringin’ up the Lusitania again. The torpedoin’ of the ship been on all our minds, ever since news came last Wednesday. He fold his robe, tuckin’ the ties real careful inside as he set it by for storage. ‘Civilians on board, women and children, and still they sank her. American citizens,
citizens, and the Boche just went ahead and—’
‘What were passengers even doing aboard that ship in the first place?’ James snap sudden like, cuttin’ him short. He been real quiet all day, so this burstin’ out take us by surprise. ‘The German embassy took out multiple advertisements, right beside the sailing notices: “Should the Lusitania be found in disputed waters, she will be considered an enemy target.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Still they went, disregarding the warning, and booking passage for their women and children too.’
He spit out a mouthful of chaw juice. ‘Folks back home have no idea, just no idea of how bad things are over here. There’s a war going on, for God’s sake. A
. And yet there they go, booking passage on a ship that’s plainly doomed. They might as well,’ he say tightly, ‘have come picnicking in front of our wire.’
It an uncharitable thing to say, I know he just worked up over tomorrow, but I want bad to laugh out loud at that.
‘You’re missing the point, Stonebridge,’ Karan protest. ‘The Boche bombed American citizens. President Wilson
to throw his hat into the ring after this, how can he possibly remain neutral any longer?’
The conversation go on as James rise abrupt like to his feet and stride away. I go over my stash of grenades in my mind once more, listenin’ with half an ear. ‘Surely now, after the Lusitania, America will come to grips at last that there’s a war on.’ ‘Yes, one we’ve been fighting for months now . . .’ ‘This could be good for everyone in the end. American troops alongside the Allies at last – unless we wrap it all up tomorrow, that is . . .’
I’m awful restless all of a sudden. All this waitin’ ’bout, with so many hours to go before tomorrow. Thinkin’ to stretch my legs, I wander over to the small knoll at the edge of the camp. Who do I find there but James, silent as a statue as he stare through the trees. The belt of bobwire just ’bout visible in the distance.
He turn at my approach, frownin’. ‘The trees must all be in bloom now. The orchard,’ he say. ‘Back home.’
Verey lights start to shoot into the dusk. They hang in the sky for a moment before sailin’ lazy like on the backdraught, trailin’ white light over the ground. Somethin’ beautiful and at the same time, cold and horror-filled ’bout that cotton-white light.
‘The Romans were right around here somewhere. Over a thousand years ago. Digging trenches, watching the dusk over these very hills.’ Another small frown. ‘And now . . .’
He don’t finish the sentence but I know what he mean. And now here we fixin’ to make the charge ourselves. An odd notion, to think of those long-gone Roman soldiers. Did they stand where we are, lookin’ down into the dark? Did they wonder ’bout all that gonna happen when the sun rise from behind them hills, did they have these prancin’ dancin’ butterflies in their bellies too?